If someone said you would work past midnight for the next year, what would you say?
1. “What’s in it for me?”
2. “Well, what will I be doing all that time?”
3. “Can I come in at 4pm?”
4. “Ha! No way; I’ll quit.”
Now let me guess a bit about you based on your answer…
1: The Unabashed Capitalist. Congratulations – you know time is money and you’re ready to put in some face time if you can extract a premium for it.
2: The Driven Worker Bee.
3: The Sneaky Lawyer (Type). Look at you, thinking outside the box! Or just looking for loopholes. Either way, you are aware that what isn’t said is often just as important as what is.
4: The Social Butterfly. Well done – you have realized that there is more to life than your work. You can’t imagine spending more than 40 hours a week in the office without a gun pointed at your head. You work to live, not the other way around.
Let’s be clear – I’m not saying you can gauge your diligence or ambition based on this question alone. But it may not be an irrelevant point to consider.
Whether you work for a multinational or not, I’m not the first person to point out that every business is now effectively international. Not only do you need a global mentality, you will frequently have to adopt time zone-agnostic hours as well. Mix in a still-recovering economy and employers who are hardly too shy to demand ever more time from their employees. Voila, the perfect recipe for crazy hours!
So is that it then? Are job seekers best advised to simply surrender? Are jobholders with upward ambitions expected to just concede? In a word, no.
As a junior banker working in Asia, I have been averaging >80 hours a week for the past year and a half. Even my friends well acquainted with the demands of investment banking have trouble understanding the reason for my long hours and why I do it. And that last piece is crucial. If you are faced with the prospect of working 15-18 hour days, the question you should ask is: to what end?
There are actually some good reasons to work long hours. Longer workweeks can allow you to leapfrog over colleagues on the “normal” track. Paychecks grow, titles bestow clout and offices become spacious. So the question is not “How much caffeine can I safely ingest in a 48-hour period?”, or “Can I find a better eye cream to cover my dark circles?”, or “Can I make enough money to retire by 32?” I can tell you the answers to those questions now – (1) a lot, (2) depends on your budget! and (3) no.
The key is figuring out early what you want. Why are you slogging away to the detriment of your relationships, stomach lining and youthful features? It is not a trick question, but it is a tricky question. It cannot just be about the money; compensation packages have withered. It is about your relationship with your boss. Your tenure with the company. Your trust in management. Your inherent enjoyment of your day-to-day tasks. Your ability to function well on 4-5 hours of sleep per night. Your ability – and willingness – to be a less present partner / parent / friend.
In other words, it’s about everything except the money.
If you have a clear, specific reason for prioritizing work over friends, family, sleep and exercise, I say go for it. If you can be guaranteed that it will be short-term (no longer than two years), you have my blessing. However, if you are just ploughing ahead because you like your job and think you’re fine on five hours of sleep, be careful. Have you considered that you may like your job mostly because of the time you get to spend away from your job, i.e. in the context of a full, balanced life? By suddenly doubling time spent in your office, you may become less aware of the lovely view and more aware of the resemblance those four walls bear to a prison cell. As for sleep patterns, did you remind yourself that the last time you only got five hours of sleep was in college and you could make up for it the next day by sleeping 12 hours (during the day!)?
In some roles, unsustainably long hours are almost unavoidable. And in almost any modern careers, there will be the occasional early-morning flight or late-night conference call. You are powerless to impede globalization and you cannot singlehandedly fix the economy. As roles are being consolidated and outsourced, as salaries are being cut and bonuses are dwindling, getting a job is a cutthroat endeavour even in less competitive industries.
But the flip side is that real talent is worth more to companies, not less. Instead of luring employees with jaw-dropping compensation packages likely to be pared down later, employers may be more willing to negotiate flexible working arrangements or a few extra days’ holiday. Job seekers and job movers should not allow employers to extort them into agreeing to unfair terms. A weaker economy does not mean bargaining power sits exclusively with hiring managers, just as a marginally higher paycheck doesn’t necessarily replace weekly poker nights or cocktails with the girls. If you are offered a job that requires you to relinquish much of the “life” in “work-life balance”, make sure you have a really good reason for accepting it.
What do you think? Is there ever a good reason to work 80+ hours a week? Write a comment below and let us know your take.
Originally from the US, Allyson is currently a junior banker in Singapore and has previously lived and worked in New York, London, and Dubai.